Commissioned by King Henry VIII, this Psalter (Book of Psalms) is the most sumptuous production of the French scribe and illuminator, Jean Mallard. Several images depict Henry as King David; the annotations in Henry’s own hand show how strongly he identified with the godly Old Testament king.

The manuscript

Henry is likely to have commissioned a Psalter (rather than a Book of Hours) because this text afforded the greatest opportunity for him to be associated with King David, who was believed to have written the Psalms. Next to Psalm 1, (‘Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of sinners … his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night’), Henry writes ‘note who is blessed’. He was undoubtedly thinking of himself: the text is accompanied by an image of him reading in his bedchamber (representing night), which opens onto a garden (the daytime). The book he muses on might even be a representation of this Psalter. Other miniatures associating Henry with David include depictions of Henry playing the harp (which David used to ward away evil spirits) with his jester Will Sommers (Psalm 53); Henry as David battling Goliath (Psalm 27); and an image of Henry as David in penitence (Psalm 69).

Why is it so important?

Henry had come to see his kingship as an example of divine providence (as David’s had been). The illustrations in this Psalter, combined with Henry’s annotations, demonstrate that he did not regard reading the Psalms as an opportunity to reflect on his own possible shortcomings as a man or a ruler, but to congratulate himself and sympathise with its author. Henry’s enemies were sinners and heretics, just as God’s were.

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